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The Forgotten Agunah

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Every woman deserves to have her voice heard!

The Confused Stranger

“Wait! Could that be the time?” he thought. It was shkiah, dusk time already, and he forgot where he was going. He knew his car had to be parked somewhere, so he turned off his car in middle of the parking lot, because on erev Shabbos the Walgreens parking lot seemed like the best idea. 

“You can’t park your car here! Get back in your car, sir! Please move it!” the annoyed store owner said. 

“Clearly this man did not yet feel the Shabbos vibe,” he thought to himself. A young Jewish man was excited to make his voice heard, to sing out loud to let everyone know about Hashem and that there is a G-d in this world. “It’s Shabbos, kind sir, and I’m going to sing for my holiday.” The young man felt if he sang with all his koach, maybe the owner wouldn’t feel so sad.

However, the owner started yelling even louder for him to be quiet, so the young man understood it was time to go. The owner, seeing him walking away, started pleading with him to come back and move his car. Still singing on top of his lungs, ignoring the store owner’s pleas, he continued his Shabbos medley and walked calmly and proudly in the freezing cold towards the dark, heavy, crowded woods.

A Few Helping Hands

What seemed like a few minutes later, but instead must have been many hours later, he felt people nudging him awake. He opened his eyes even wider and felt annoyed to be swarmed by police and a forest ranger. He then was rudely awoken and taken to the psychiatric hospital. “Where am I?” the young man wondered. 

“Try to stay calm, sir. We are only trying to help. What is your name? How did you get so deep into the woods? Do you live around these parts?” Many people in white coats asked one question after another after another without even taking a breath.

“Um… I don’t remember my name, but I know I’m Jewish. Can I call my mom? I don’t know where I am?”

A Troubled Man Meets Chabad

Shortly afterwards the closest Chabad house receives a call from a very worried Jewish mother: “I don’t understand. He only had something similar but on a much lower scale. This is insane! They say he is bipolar and that he is in the manic phase. How does this make any sense?”

The rabbi felt so bad for this mother, but understood the faster she could come to terms with it the better. “Did anyone ever prescribe medication for him before?” the rabbi said, trying to calm down a Jewish hysterical mother. 

The mother hesitated, “Well, yes, but he doesn’t agree with it, and the medicine makes him feel very sick.”

“I see. Well, in the end he will have to make the responsible decision. Is there anything I can help him with?” the rabbi asked, ready to fix his schedule to help a young man in need.

“Well, Rabbi, I really appreciate this. It’s an hour away, but he will need you to come daily for food, support, and prayer. Do you think that’s possible?”

“Yes, definitely!” the rabbi replied, thinking though he had no idea how he would rearrange his schedule, but it needed to happen for a fellow Jew in need. 

The Worried Rebbetzin

I was  flying to get a lot of kosher food ready because someone was in our neck of the woods, and that meant kosher was hard to find.  I just heard and felt horrible that a young Jewish man was found alone singing and rambling to himself in the woods. He must have had a nervous breakdown. “What was his story?” I wondered but didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want to know but only wanted to help. Sometimes things were better left unsaid and unknown.

I reluctantly gave my husband, the rabbi, my bar mitzvah boy’s tefillin. My husband was a leftie and my son was a rightie, so that meant that my son’s brand new tefillin would have to go to our new guest. I worried that the man might ruin them, given his particular state. 

The more I persisted, the more I knew that my approach was flawed. Here my husband was giving a complete stranger my bar mitzvah boy’s special tefillin to borrow. A man we did not know, a man who was off his meds, bi-polar, and a man still being evaluated by the psychiatric hospital. 

I knew I had to face the music! This time it would be such a difficult mitzvah: a mitzvah I had no control over! Also, my son could lose his brand new tefillin, but another fellow Jew was in need.  

We were emissaries, shluchim, and our fellow Jew always must come first, and I had to trust in Hashem. The mitzvah of tefillin is a special one, and I had to let go of my fears and trust that everything is for a reason.

On the other hand, my son was ecstatic to help in this great mitzvah. He was full of such joy to be a part of mivtzoim and helping out our new guest.  So I chided my nervous mother hen, and joined in with the excitement. 

A week later, I received a text message that read, “Coming soon with our new guest who will be joining us for dinner.” I tried to think to myself what was I missing? New guest? Who was coming? 

I quickly responded, “How many plates should I set up for?” clearly thinking that perhaps a new Hebrew school family will be joining our community.

“Just add one more,” my phone beeped, and my wheels started turning for me to comprehend that this young man would be joining us. I felt drained of all my energy and felt the draft of fear hug my shoulders. How would this friendly dinner end up? How will it  turn out? Will we be safe? What if he had another episode right here in my living room? 

My little boys ran to greet and hug him while my older ones shook his hand proudly. I was way out of my comfort zone as a mother of seven boys, and our guest fresh out of the hospital. 

Although my heart hurt for him, and some Jewish mother was in horrible pain knowing her son was suffering from bipolar. My inner soul worried about the what-could-be’s. What might happen and all the shushing of my soul made it worse, and it pounded out the worries even more.

As a family, my boys were quick to make him their friend, and the interrogation began. They surrounded him like a long lost brother and gave him high fives in between bites of tasty Jewish food.  My husband joined in with the friendly questions, and he sang Jewish songs that brought the table closer together. Our night lasted a while until my young sons were ready for bed. 

My better half whispered to me that the man had no proper clothes, and he would take him shopping tonight and bring him to Chicago tomorrow to join his family. I usually don’t care what people wore as long as they were comfortable, but his white fluffy slippers and all-white pajama attire made me understand that he needed proper clothes.

The Rabbi’s Good Deed

 I looked at the rabbi and understood that he was going to pay for everything which was the emissary’s style of doing things when one was in need, and I was completely in agreement for this great act of chesed.

It would definitely be much more hectic with my spouse out of town, but a Yiddishe person was in need of our help, and I eagerly agreed even if we didn’t have much. This young man deserved to have some dignity and new clothes: shoes, sweater, and a coat would help.

It was always more hectic when my husband had to be out of town because a lot more fell upon me. However, my mind was elsewhere when I tried to imagine what would happen if our guest had another episode while my husband was driving  bumper to bumper in traffic?

I finally gave into my nerves and called his phone. My calmer half picked up. “Is everything alright we both asked at the same time?” I kept quiet not knowing what to say but glad that all was well. The long pause continued until he finally said, “Something came up, and I will be here for longer.” 

“What came up? Do you need to stay there tonight?” I said, while trying to figure out how I could help.

My husband’s voice increased to a higher pitch but still friendly as he was balancing many things:  a busy highway, our phone call, and bad reception. “I have to take our guest to the airport, but first we are going to the Beis Din, Jewish court, and  I’ll call you back later.”

 I remember us talking about his wife briefly. He had a few kids but wasn’t able to see them much because of his episodes, and it made his life extremely hard. 

The Forgotten Agunah

The next day my husband and I sat together in the Chabad house for a small lunch, and I was waiting to hear if he would let me know how everything worked out. “I wish I had time to tell you before what happened, but such miracles and mitzvos fell into my lap all at once and there was no time. Our guest was supposed to catch his flight, but explained to me his situation with his wife and children, and it was then that I realized-she was an Agunah,” (a woman unable to get divorced because her husband wouldn’t agree to it). 

Taking a deep breath and looking exhausted he continued, “After a long heartzich, heart-to-heart talk, he finally agreed to give her the divorce papers. I felt bad for him because he is such a good person, and a real mensch. However, this young man being bi-polar, refusing meds, and not knowing when the next episode would happen, really made anyone married to him living in  a very unlivable situation.”

“What about his kids? How would that work out?” I said, feeling awful for our guest but understanding the severity and pain of one being an Agunah

“So, his children, it is a very sad story that no child should be inside of,  but when he has an episode, he is not himself, and no one knows when that will happen,” my husband said, looking down. I could see how much this whole story affected him–especially when it comes to children and families being split apart.

“How did you get him to have a divorce so fast and without him changing his mind about it?” I said, feeling really confused, but I realized many miracles unfolded that day, and I was excited to hear how it unfolded. 

“Well, as soon as I heard, then I carefully got in touch with as many people that were needed to organize it. I had to do it in a way where our guest would barely notice, so as not to cause him anymore pain. We went together, and his wife came to the place as well  but separately. However, as soon as we came outside, his mother and brother were crying and obviously very angry.”

The Overprotective Big Brother 

“His brother lives in Chicago?” I was surprised, not thinking he has much family here.

“No, his brother flew in from Florida and understood like we did that our guest would probably not have any real relationship with his kids unless he chose to get his episodes under control with medicine, and he probably wouldn’t do it.” 

“Isn’t this disruptive to the divorce proceedings in Jewish court?”

“Yes, it has to be not forced and no pressure from any outside force. So I decided to tell the mother to please wait in her car, and why. She finally agreed, but the brother refused, so I had to take him into my car.”

“He just came in your car? Wouldn’t he be furious with you? Weren’t you worried?” I said worriedly. 

“Well, it was raining and freezing; he only had a thin sweater on, so I asked him to come into my warm car. After much nudging, he did. We then spoke about the situation calmly, and I explained that I understand how he feels, but practically his sister-in-law is an Agunah, and his brother is holding her hostage because the marriage is over. They were no longer even in the same house because our guest had to live with his mom now until things calmed down a bit.”

“Did he yell at you, or just listened?”

“Well, he understood and after about a long twenty minutes agreed. I then went in and continued with the divorce proceedings, and Baruch Hashem, a forgotten Agunah, was free at last.”

“So it looks like everything will be ok,” I said, feeling overwhelmed with the great outcome and relieved that it was finally resolved. 

“Yes, a hard story, but our guest will be living with his mom for a little bit until he can get back on his feet again.” My husband also took a  deep breath and looked relieved that everything worked out. 

“It was such a hectic few weeks, but well worth the investment. There were many twists and turns, but I’m so happy that we had the privilege of helping our guest,” I said, feeling like we can finally take a breath of fresh air, knowing that at any moment the phone can ring, and we will be busy helpers once again.

“Yes, definitely!” my better half beamed!

The Gift Of A Mitzvah

After a few weeks passed, life became hectic again, and we were busy with many more encounters with our fellow in need. One morning, the phone rang, and it was my husband. I picked up, hoping the conversation was as quick as my feet and the hectic pace the day laid out for me. 

“I want you to come to the Chabad house because I want to show you a surprise,” he said, sounding lively and animated.

I was confused: a surprise? The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I knew it was shlichus-related, and that meant we would be helping someone in need.  “Ok, I’ll take a quick break and come over right away,” I said trying to hold my excitement, which bubbled over with a childish curiosity.

Ten minutes later, I rushed up the stairs to the Chabad house; my husband held the door open and led me to the office. He motioned for me to sit down and opened up the bottom drawer. “What was he going to show me?” I wondered. 

A small black bag was carefully unzipped and gently placed in my eyes’ view which held a pair of brand new  tefillin. “Tefillin? I’m confused?” I said, caught off guard and tried to understand the “big” surprise.

My husband’s eyes remained focused, but his smile gave away how excited he was. “This is the tefillin that we bought. After lending out our bar mitzvah boy’s tefillin for a few weeks, we finally have a spare.”

“Oh. Really?!” Now I understood his excitement. It was I who requested for another pair even when it seemed trivial and expensive. I felt that another pair of tefillin in a Chabad house could always help. 

“Well, right away a few people already asked for it! They were in a tight situation and were worried that we didn’t have a spare, and now we do for whoever needs it,” my spouse said,  now beaming and looking at me proudly. 

He doubted we would really need another pair, but my heart felt we did, and I’m glad that I listened to my inner intuition, and we were able to help many more in need.

About the Author
Born in New York state into a family on Shlichus, Esther was formally trained in Chabad institutions in America and Canada as an educator and community leader with the lifelong goal of helping an under-served Jewish populace. She and her husband, along with their children, have been serving the local community, as well as the Northeast Wisconsin region, for over a decade, providing for any and all needs of everyone's personal journey with G-d.
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